by January 12, 1999 0 comments

Have you ever imagined what it would be like if you couldn’t
share that laser printer? Or if
    there was no mouse or browser to let you surf the Internet?

Every now and then, we have a new product that changes
everything in its wake, and computing is never the same again. Which are the 20 most
significant products–in hardware and software–that have happened to computing?
Here’s our list (in alphabetical order) of 10 each in the two categories.
Hardware

CD-ROMs

Ever tried installing Win 95 from the 15 floppies that it used to come in? And what if the
fourteenth turned out to be corrupt? We aren’t talking nonsense. Ask any old-timer
and they’d have a hundred such horror stories to recount. The floppy, like its name
indicates, is a fragile medium. And the bloat that became the regular feature of
applications was something the floppy just couldn’t cope with.
Rescue came in the form of the CD-ROM. Surprisingly, the CD-ROM wasn’t even meant for
distributing software. It was developed in 1980 by Philips and Sony for music storage. The
74 minutes of music that the disk could hold converted to approximately 650 MB of data,
and proved to be a Godsend for the software industry. The CD-ROM first appeared as a
software medium in 1983. The hunt for the next killer storage media is on, but for now,
CD-ROMs are the preferred choice.

Ethernet cards
Today, a network is a must, particularly if you’re in an office. And
more often than not, it’s an Ethernet network. With technologies like ATM and FDDI
being restricted to the backbones or to specialized networks that require high bandwidths,
Ethernet is today the only option that spans the entire spectrum– covering small,
medium, and even large networks.

Ethernet is so named after Ether–the medium that was
once thought to propagate electromagnetic waves through space. Though the existence of
Ether had been disproved, Bob Metcalfe–the inventor of Ethernet named it so, to
signify that it could carry signals to all types of computers. This is something Ethernet
does with consummate ease even today. In keeping with the times, it’s grown from
transfer rates of 10 Mbps to 100 Mpbs and now, with the advent of the Gigabit
Ethernet–to 1,000 Mbps. Without Ethernet, the connected world would surely have been
a different place today.

Macintosh
Sure, the PC changed the world. But for years, it played catch-up to
another machine–the Macintosh.
The Mac–as it’s fondly called–was launched by Apple in 1984, and soon
became a cult figure. Its single USP throughout has been ease of use, which is best
exemplified by the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and the mouse, both of which the Mac
sported many years before the PC. And it had plug-and-play, way before the PC got to
plug-and-pray!

Unfortunately for the Mac, it always remained a fringe
system, thanks to the closed-door policies of Apple. Unlike the IBM PC clone, there never
was a Mac clone. Even when cloning was finally allowed, the plug was pulled soon enough.

All said, however, the Mac did have a tremendous impact on
personal computing, as it went through innovations for the PC to catch up with. Even with
the current-day iMac and iBook, the story remains the same.

Modems
Man has always been a communicating animal. Some of the greatest
inventions of all time, including the telephone and the television, have risen out of his
need to communicate across vast distances. Playing the role of the telephone in the cyber
world is the modem.

Starting off with the now-lowly 300 bps
“modulator-demodulator”, the modem’s come a long way indeed in connecting
up the world–first through bulletin boards and now through the Internet. As connect
speeds increased, so did the varieties and technologies of modems available, all the way
up to DSL.
In the connected future, there’s no doubt that the modem will in one form or the
other, continue to play its vital role in linking mankind together.

Mouse
The mouse certainly gets the votes of all those who hate striking their
fingers on the keyboard for anything except typing. And the mouse did just that, by making
everything “just a click away”. From minimizing a window to surfing the Web, you
can do it all with a click, thanks to the mouse. The mouse too has come a long
way–with one, two, and then three buttons, rollers, and the most recent cordless
mice.

So, who invented the mouse? Douglas C Engelbart
demonstrated the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System” way back in 1968.
The mouse had to wait for 16 long years before finding widespread application in the
Macintosh. Today, you can’t even think of a computer without a mouse of some sort.
Truly, one of the inventions that redefined computing.

PC
Today, the terms PC and computer are used interchangeably. That in effect,
sums up the impact that the original IBM PCs had on computing.

The original IBM PC was also the first computer to be built
on an open architecture, letting others to add features to the machine by way of add-on
cards. This architecture is one of the reasons why it became so popular, and more
importantly, laid the foundation for a multi-multi-billion-dollar industry. The world was
never quite the same again after the first PC was introduced in 1981.

Printers
Affordable printing came our way with the dot matrix printer. Quality got
added to affordability with the laser. We’ve combined both here into one
class–Printers. Did we miss out the inkjet? Not quite. Impact- wise, the DMPs and the
laser printers are more significant. The inkjet is yet to realize its full potential and
is well-poised to be the printer of choice in the future.

Dot matrix printers
The first DMP to make its appearance was the Epson EP101–the first
mini-printer to be launched– in 1968. DMPs became an incredible success, with their
low per-page cost of printing and the ability to print multiple forms. The downside was
quality, and color. There was only so much that the DMP could do on both fronts. With the
advent of the low-cost laser and inkjet, pundits predicted the demise of the
DMP. But it
refuses to die in this country. It could live on well into the new millennium, in the many
accounts departments and banks, and even shops with their POS terminals.

Laser printers
Long before inkjets offered breathtaking color to sweep users off their
feet, the laser printer set the standard in print quality. Sharp prints without visible
jagged lines was just one of their USPs. The other was quiet operation. To a generation
used to the high-pitched chattering of the DMP, the quiet laser was a welcome relief. And
unlike the DMP, the laser soon acquired the ability to get plugged on to your network.
Today, the laser printer has changed the face of corporate printing, and is the de facto
choice for large-volume corporate printing.

Sound Blaster
Most PCs today come with built-in sound. And the circuitry that produces
this sound invariably claims Sound Blaster compatibility. It’s the Sound Blaster card
that made multimedia possible and affordable on the PC. The early multimedia kits from
Creative–incorporating a sound card, a CD-ROM drive, and a pair of speakers–were
hot sellers, as PC users raced to extend their machines into the new frontier of
multimedia. In fact, for a couple of years, multimedia (represented by a CD-ROM drive, a
sound card and two speakers) was considered to be the prime driver of computing,
particularly for the home market.
Today, sound capability is beginning to be built into the motherboard and the chipset
itself, and soon, sound cards as a separate product may vanish altogether. But the Sound
Blaster will have a special place in personal computing history for having ushered in the
age of affordable multimedia.

Tape storage
If you happen to see photographs of old mainframes, what’ll strike
you will be the spools of tape loaded on them. The visual prominence is indeed matched by
reality. Tape storage has had a very critical role to play in computing, almost from the
very beginning. Consider this. Before the advent of tape, the option was paper! Remember
the punched cards and the paper tapes that computers and calculators of yesteryears used?

One of the disadvantages of tape is that it’s a
sequential access technology, and is therefore slow. But when it comes to taking backups,
this works to the advantage of tape-based devices, as you’re not looking for
split-second responses. Also, the compact nature of tape makes it possible to store very
large volumes of data in very little physical space.

Today, tape-based backup devices support the entire
spectrum of computers from desktop computers to enterprise application servers and
mainframes. Like good wine, tape technology has also improved with the passage of time,
and as yet there’s nothing on the horizon that can replace tape as the preferred
option for mass storage and backup.

Software

C++
First, there was programming. Then came structured programming. And then,
with C++, came object oriented programming. Today, all mainstream languages implement the
object-oriented way of writing code. To put it very simply, you associate actions to
objects. These objects, once created are reusable across projects. So, as is obvious, one
of the primary advantages of this method is that time required for writing code comes down
drastically.

Like with many other categories, C++ was by no means the
first object oriented programming language. There was Simula and Smalltalk before it. But
neither of them caught the imagination of programmers or vendors like C++ did. C++ was
written by Bjarn Stroustrup in 1983, and has attracted an increasing number of adherents
since then.

Java
When compiled programs seemed to have firmly established their ascendancy
over slow interpreters, Java bucked the trend and went back to the days of interpreted
languages. But simultaneously, Java also bucked the trend of writing platform-specific
code and then going through the laborious process of porting it to other platforms. It
held out the promise of code that could run on any platform, without any changes
whatsoever. To the programming community still coming to grips with the profusion of OSs
on the Net, Java was indeed a godsend.

So far, mainstream software created in Java has been on the
rarer side. Also, the much-touted Java chips haven’t yet delivered their potential.
But still, any operating system worth its name includes a Java virtual machine, and Java
is often the preferred tool for the Internet and the intranet. Java has indeed changed the
way programming for the Net has evolved.

Lotus 1-2-3
When the PC first came out, it was nothing more than a potential killer
device waiting for the killer application—the application that would prove to the
world its true potential, the application without which the PC would never have become the
PC as we know it today. That killer application turned out to be Lotus 1-2-3. The
“1-2-3” in the name stands for the three applications that were built into the
product—namely spreadsheet, graphing, and database. It was programmed by Jonathan
Sachs, and Mitch Kapor was the software designer.

Making its debut in 1983, two years after the advent of the
PC, 1-2-3 proved that the PC could have more to it than the calculators that were its
predecessor. For many years, 1-2-3, and Lotus ruled the roost. In fact, Lotus in those
days was a major force to reckon with, as is evidenced by the LIM (Lotus-Intel-Microsoft)
specifications on expanded memory.

Netscape Navigator
Mosaic was the first Web browser to provide a graphical front-end for
browsing the Internet. But Netscape is solely responsible for making the first millions
hook on to the World Wide Web. Netscape started to add new features to the browser at such
a furious pace that Mosaic was soon left far behind. But then, being a university product,
it’s also not right to expect such a frantic pace of innovation from Mosaic. Anyway,
for a long time, Netscape Navigator, as it was known then (it became the Communicator
subsequently, with Navigator being one of the components) was the only Web browser that
was available to users, although they had to pay for it.

Later, as it faced competition from IE, Navigator also
became free, and still later, even the source code was made open. Navigator may wither
away in future, or become a minor browser in the larger game. But no-one can deny its
rightful place in computing history—as the browser that opened the floodgates to the
Internet.

Operating systems
Even the novices among us know that computers need operating systems to
run. There’s no doubt that what operating systems can or can’t do, has to a
large extent defined what computers themselves could achieve. Mac aficionados will notice
that we’ve left out the MacOS here. The MacOS was no doubt a revolutionary product,
but it’s so tightly bound to the Macintosh that any mention here would be a
repetition of what we’ve said earlier about the Mac.

Linux
A variant of Unix, Linux has been a joint effort of developers worldwide,
who over a decade, built up a lean and sturdy OS that can take on the best that commercial
vendors have to offer. Linux’s claim to fame is that it fueled a new paradigm in
software development and distribution—the now-widespread Open Source movement.

Today, Linux poses a significant challenge to all other
operating systems, both on the server and on the desktop. One of the reasons why it’s
able to throw an across-the-board challenge is that it’s been ported to almost all
hardware platforms available, including the latest as well as the most esoteric.

NetWare
Novell’s NetWare made networking what it is today, particularly in
small to medium-sized companies. A robust operating system, NetWare made it possible to
use cheap Intel-based servers instead of the costly RISC ones demanded by Unix. To those
not well-versed in the inner workings of Unix, the advent of NDS (Novell Directory
Services) made managing networks easier than it was ever before. In fact, till recently,
NetWare was about the only choice for a network server OS, other than Unix.

Later, NetWare yielded its leading position in this segment
to Win NT, but it still continues to be a significant enough presence in most networks.

Unix
Developed by Bell Labs in the early 1970s, Unix has since then split up
into a number of variants, and nobody’s sure about how many exist or what their
current status is. Most variants of Unix evolved as sturdy operating systems for
servers—particularly high-end ones—and workstations.
The Nerd’s favorite operating system, Unix’s most significant claim to fame is
that the Internet is mostly Unix-like, with many Unix features like TCP/IP and e-mail
becoming standards on the Net. This can be directly attributed to the fact that the
Internet initially was built solely around Unix machines.

Windows
When we talk of Windows, we normally mean Windows for the personal
desktop, currently Win 98. But there are many other versions too. There’s the server
version—Win NT, with its next version to be called Windows 2000. There’s Win NT
workstation for commercial desktops, and there’s Windows CE for hand-held devices. An
embedded version has apparently on the cards.

On the desktop, Windows has had dominant mind and market
share, while on the server, it has become a potent force comparatively recently. In the
hand-held market, Windows has had to play second fiddle to the Palm OS.

PKZip
The “PK” in PKZip stands for Phillip Katz, the author of the
program. PKZip was by no means the first compression utility. But when it was released in
1989, it soon became the most widely-used compression program. The zip format that’s
become the standard in compressing files comes from PKZip. PKZip owes its popularity to
Katz’s decision to make his software widely available by distributing it as
shareware.

PKZip missed the Windows bandwagon, with a Windows version
coming out quite late in the day. By then, however, WinZip had become the standard file
compression utility on Windows. However, PKZip led the way in helping us conserve valuable
hard disk real estate in the face of ever-burgeoning file sizes.

Visual Basic
Visual Basic brought simplicity and elegance to programming. It completely
hid the rigors of programming behind drag-and-drop elements and thus enabled absolute
newbies to create professional-looking, feature-rich applications. That’s exactly
what Visual Basic was supposed to do. Created by Microsoft with the express mandate of
making programming for Windows easier, Visual Basic has succeeded in doing exactly that.

Hardcore coders love to hate Visual Basic and shrug it off
as good only for creating front-ends. But today, even they’re mixing and matching VB
with their favorite VC++ and Delphi, as they go about creating their next masterpiece.

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